Friday, June 6, 2014

Nursery Rhyme Illustrations by Francis Donkin Bedford

Here are a few selections from Francis Donkin Bedford's A Book of Nursery Rhymes, first published in 1897. Bedford is one of the great illustrators from the so-called Golden Age of Children's Literature in the Western world. We're talking late 1800's, early 1900's, the era of Winnie the Pooh, Alice in Wonderland, the nonsense poetry of my beloved Edward Lear, and many other classics. Bedford's prints now reside in many prominent museums in the United States and Europe. This first image of Little Boy Blue can be found in the Met's collection.

What I love best about all of these images is the gentle, yet expressive use of color. 
There is a continuous play of contrast between warm reds and cool greens, yet the colors are muted enough to create a comfortable atmosphere. Each scene seems to be taking place on a sunny day in springtime. The most dramatic use of color is in Jack and Jill's scene, where Jill's bright red frock (along with her wild hair) conveys a sense of distress. But again, it is playful and mild. There is no need to spill blood when creating literary drama for a child. Children are more sensitive than adults, since so much of the world is still new to them. 

What I love second best about Bedford's nursery rhyme illustrations is how much the characters, both major and minor, are integral to a complete environment. The color of any one child's complexion or hair is repeated elsewhere in flowers, trees, and the roofs of houses. It is almost impossible to 
zero in exclusively on anyone for long. Instead, the viewer is forced to see the people in a larger context. We see the mother's reaction to Jack and Jill's fall down the hill. We see the children in the background who are running, carefree, oblivious to the child in the foreground who weeps over the drowned pussycat. This pulls away from the typically Western sense of the individual, and connects the actors to each other and the place in which they reside. 

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